After some years of living in China, I can safely say that words used by native Chinese speakers in the Chinese language do not have the same significance when heard by bilingual foreigners, or translated into foreign languages, such as English, for monolingual foreigners. A key difference seems to be that Chinese speakers do not take meanings as literally as Western speakers do. This disconnect goes beyond the cultural difference of Westerners being direct speakers and Chinese being indirect speakers. Rather, it lies in the fact that, for most Chinese I have met, meaning lies in what is unsaid, as opposed to what is stated. Thus, in communicative exchanges, a skillful communicator, whether a native Chinese or a bilingual Westerner, tries to read between the lines, and draw connections, taking time to contemplate before interpreting messages. This type of "invisible interaction" often drives my foreign friends mad, but actually it is a very thoughtful process, and considered a form of respect as well as a way to leave room for the respondent to consider carefully before answering. "Chinese people feel that words are inadequate; people may say something they do not believe or feel, and furthermore, there are many concepts that cannot be fully expressed by language," said Zhang Mei, my Chinese teacher. On the other hand, other Chinese friends have told me that they too, feel frustrated in dealing with Western people. "They always want some answer, some explanation, for everything," said Zhang, "And sometimes life is not that cut and dried."
Another difference in communication styles that can rile up both parties—Chinese and Western—lies in the use of personal pronouns. When I taught English in China years ago, I noted that these grammatical particles seemed to be very loosely applied by my students, in both speech and writing. But in observing conversational exchanges, especially meetings, I began to understand how culture is embedded in how people employ personal pronouns. For example, North Americans always stress the "I" identity, and even when representing something: an academic department, a company, or an American would always use the term "I." In contrast, Chinese redirect authorship to involve other members of the group by employing a "we" identity in spoken and written communications. Even a Chinese boss will use "we." This often confuses Westerners, who want to see a clear hierarchy, in order to know how to behave. As for my Chinese friends, they often say that this "I" identity seems arrogant and self-centered.
A third difference has to do with the way Chinese and Westerners, especially Americans, view what I call "polite talk." My Chinese teacher has repeatedly said that she cannot understand why American classmates are always apologizing to each other, or asking each other with requests peppered with "please" and "thank you." "It makes no sense at all to me," Zhang said, "Because they know each other well...so why all this nonsense with 'please'?" For the Chinese, if you are family or good friends, requests are made without these niceties; by adding them, one adds a degree of formality. Thus my teacher's confusion. Another Chinese cultural trait is to imply a request, rather than directly state it. This gives both parties face, because if the request is turned down, then the one who asks cannot lose face, because she may assume that the implication was misunderstood or overlooked. It also saves the face of the one being asked, for the same reasons.
In contrast, Western people like direct, specific requests. Saying "no" does not mean a loss of face; it simply marks a boundary that the person being asked will not cross. Certainly, feelings can get hurt, but presumably a Western person knows that in asking, there are chances of being refused. These types of cultural differences can cause much grief. One French friend said to me a few days ago: "I am married to a delightful Chinese woman, but it took me years to understand some of her communications. This is not because I don't understand Chinese; I do. My Chinese is great. It is because I did not understand her patterns of speaking. She always asked me: Are you hungry? Are you tired? Do you want to go to a movie? She was actually saying that she was hungry, tired, or wanted to go to a movie! Finally, her sister explained this oddness to me."
Clearly, language carries underlying cultural premises and philosophies. Western people who learn Chinese are to be applauded, for making the effort to cross a linguistic barrier that is as wide as the oceans they cross to get to China. But simply understanding Chinese from a linguistic point of view is not enough: As foreigners, we must also acknowledge that Chinese ways of speaking and patterns of interactions are just as valid as those from our own linguistic repertoires.
The author is an American living in Hohhot, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region